Article written by Ellen Matloff for Forbes. Matloff is a regular Forbes contributor, covering genetic counseling, testing, and digital health. The original article can be found here.
For years, many of us in the genetics community have strongly suggested that consumers think long and hard before ordering recreational genetic test kits for Christmas – or any other occasion. But when the Pentagon sends a stern warning to its military members, even Santa needs to listen.
Why would the Pentagon be worried about our military using at-home DNA kits? A memo issued to service members from the Office of the Secretary of Defense states that recreational genetic kits could give military personnel inaccurate information about their health. These inaccurate results could have negative professional consequences, particularly because military members, who are required to report medical problems, are not covered by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), which prohibits genetic discrimination by employers and health insurers.
It is already well known that these kits should not be used to answer serious medical questions based on a personal or family history of disease. Anyone with such a history should consult a certified genetic counselor to ensure that an accurate test is ordered and interpreted correctly. The Pentagon concurs, saying they don’t advise against genetic testing altogether, but recommend that service members get genetic information from a licensed professional rather than a recreational kit.
But are there other reasons the Pentagon may be warning against recreational genetic test kits? Could this genetic information lead to genetic surveillance, tracking, and grave privacy concerns for military personnel and others who use these kits?
China has already demonstrated that genetic technology and research findings, intended to help people, can instead be used to harm. It is believed that the Chinese government has collected DNA samples from its citizens through mandatory physicals to create a large database that’s being used to weed out up to one million Uighurs to be sent to concentration camps. Although U.S. citizens, thankfully, enjoy greater protections than those in China, this example illustrates that our DNA can give insight into ancestry and ethnic origins that can be used for grave harm.
In fact, genetic data can reportedly be used to determine how ‘gay’ a person is, and if you are a 23andMe user who shared your data for research, you may have contributed to this study. Could DNA data be used to determine if military personnel may be gay? And if so, could that information be used against them?
And, of course, none of these companies can guarantee that their databases won’t be hacked, as has happened in the past. Recently, GEDmatch, the genealogy company used to track down the Golden State Killer, was acquired by a company created to work with crime labs. Other testing companies have chosen to share their user data with the FBI. How will all of this consumer data be used, for good or evil? The truth is, we don’t know.
What we do know is that undercover military agents could likely be identified using a small sample of blood or saliva and large DNA databases. This may be true whether or not they personally have undergone recreational genetic testing, since one of their relatives probably has. For our military working undercover, this means that anonymity is likely a thing of the past.